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Fifth Time Lucky

As near as I can make out, I was taught to knit five different times, many years apart, before it all came together. (All right, if you saw the sweater I'm working on now, you'd wonder about that "all came together" remark, but just work with me, okay?)

The first time, I was about six years old, and basically I pestered my mother until she huffed out a big sigh and sat me down and tried to show me. This would have been about 1968. She was probably working on some acid green Dacronİ fiasco which no doubt would have captivated me at that tender, taste-free age. I don't really remember. It's probably a good thing for all of us. But I do remember my mother trying to fit me into her lap and reach her arms around me to show me how the needle would jut into the stitch, and then the yarn would swoop and dip and then pull through -- like magic -- to start a new row. Another stitch, and then another, and then I wanted to try. She put her hands over my hands, guided the movements of the needles and yarn, then let me pull the stitch through -- like magic -- and about 14 stitches flew off the needles in front of me, and I suddenly remembered it was time to watch The Flintstones...while she was left to pick up the spray of fallen stitches. That was the first time.

The second time, I would have been in high school, so say about 15 years old. 1977. I think I was fresh out of my macramé period. Some friends who were girls (but not 'girlfriends') would knit in the cafeteria over lunch and during spare periods, whenever they weren't eating, reading trashy magazines or sneaking out the back door for a smoke. I watched them and watched them but, of course, I was observing their work from the purl side so it wasn't making much sense. One day I sat next to one of them -- Roberta -- to watch from the right side, but her hands were moving too fast for me to follow even when she slowed them down. Needle here. Wool here. Bring this through. Onto that. I couldn't get it. Stitches slopping everywhere or tugged airtight, yarn in a tangle, needles flying through the air and pinging to the floor three tables away. She sighed and said, "Don't worry about it. It's no big deal. Why d'you want to learn for anyway?" She said it as if it was a chore to knit, as if she'd rather be doing anything else. She held her knitting up against herself, asked me "What do you think?" then added, "I go shopping with my mom but I don't like anything I see -- and when I do it never fits" (as Roberta was on the chesty side) "so I just make things for myself. This is a top for spring. I like the blue." I looked at it and nodded. I liked the blue too. I too went shopping with my mom and didn't like anything that I saw. And even though I was not at all chesty, I'd've liked to make things for myself. But I decided not to worry about it. It was no big deal. That was the second time.

The third time: five years later, 1982. I had just moved away from home and in with my best friend Brian. His brother was a female impersonator, Dee Dee, and she was hosting a stitch'n'bitch (in every sense) for some of her drag queen pals. While there was much more bitching than stitching -- and possibly more drinking than anything -- I do vaguely remember this being the first time that I knit all the way to the end of one row, and with excruciating effort, purled all the way back. I think then I must have passed out...or else I helped out in the kitchen with a batch of contraband brownies, and then I passed out...but that doesn't matter. The third time was the first time that I really and truly knit. And then I promptly forgot.

Things I've never learned how to do, despite my best efforts: Swim. Drive. Whistle. Haggle. Crochet. Write with my left hand. Play Gin or Bridge or Euchre or any card game with trumps. Smoke. Sing. Sew, either by hand or machine. (My dad was an upholsterer and put a machine needle through his thumb once, it's better not to talk about it.) Computer programming outside of high-school Fortran and Basic. Perform first aid or any kind of lifesaving technique. 'Speak' in American Sign Language. Mix a real martini.

The fourth time, you'll be delighted to know, resulted in a sweater. A godawful unholy unwearable sweater made entirely of mohair, totally black except for the wide red stripe around the waist and the four yellow vertical stripes on the left side of the chest. I had just moved to Toronto and it was 1984. My first job in my new city was at the very employment centre where I had been looking for work. It was fall, and it was chilly, and the women I worked with had little to do at lunch except stay in and knit. So I stayed in and I knit with them. It was then that I learned that my purls were twisted, my knits too tight, my tension too tense. But I did make that shapeless black sweater, over the winter, shedding black little mohairs everywhere I went, like some malnourished goat. I knit every single stitch of it, and I sewed every impossible inch of its seams, and when it was finished I wore it -- twice -- and although I loved it, I also saw it for the hideous thing that it truly was, so it went up on a shelf in the back of the closet and I have no idea whatever happened to it. But I did finish it, and I did wear it, and even started another (Pingouin no less, all wavy ripples and short rows, two hundred dollars worth of yarn, God knows where that ended up). Then I quit that job and got a new one with no one to knit with, and years went by without another stitch.

The fifth time began in 1993 -- though I didn't realize it until nearly ten years later. I saw a copy of Montse Stanley's classic Reader's Digest Knitter's Handbook on a back table in a local bookstore and, on a whim, I picked it up. I knew nothing of the book or its writer, and its sterling reputation had not yet been established. I brought it home and flipped through it, stopping from time to time to pore over particular sections or study one of the beautifully drawn illustrations. I realized that I had found a treasure. Over the next decade I knitted very little, but I often pulled the book from the shelf and re-read one part or another, until I found myself thinking "So that's what short rows are all about," and "There's how you do beaded knitting". I don't believe you can learn to knit just from a book, even an excellent one. For me, at least, it was something I had to watch someone else do, and then try myself -- several times -- before I could make anything other than a mess. But I know you can greatly improve your knowledge of knitting, and your grasp of the skills, from any number of smart sophisticated books on the subject -- and this one became a touchstone for me without my even knowing it.

By 2003 I had slowly returned to knitting as any number of new books and magazines and websites emerged with modern designs and fresh approaches. A friend at work saw me knitting at my desk (an Alien Illusion scarf, if you must know) and wanted to know how the pattern worked. She could knit, you see, but had never purled, and was fascinated by what I was doing. I sat her down beside me, and showed her how to purl, and how the green and black strands of knit and purl brought the design forward. It was easy, I assured her -- if I could do it, anyone could. And that, in its way, was the fifth time.



David lives, works, writes and knits (not necessarily in that order) in beautiful, nerve-wracking downtown Toronto.